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As Cherokee County’s economic development director for eight years, Jim Cook said he has never been busier. After a huge score in 2015 — beating out Upstate competitors for a $104 million, 400-job Dollar Tree Inc. distribution center — Cherokee County’s business recruiting team is looking for more.
“I’m busier than I’ve ever been,” Cook said. “We’ve had a lot of announcements. We’ve just got to keep things moving forward.”
Cook said the state border county has recorded close to $300 million in investments and 1,300 new jobs in recent years. County officials have invested in a 50,000-square-foot, expandable spec building, their first, and former SC Works Cherokee Center Director Ken Moon has joined Cook’s staff as development board deputy director.
“There’s a lot of activity out there,” he said. “We’ve losing a lot, but we’re getting a lot.”
Cook said the county “lost Dollar Tree twice” before the company returned and picked the site in Cowpens. He said that during the recruiting effort “they said ‘We are going somewhere else, thank you very much. We’ve picked another place.’ They were nice enough to tell us we didn’t get it.” Cook said a sudden land transaction and unexpected costs related to sites outside of Cherokee County brought Dollar Tree back.
“So in this game it is never over until they start digging somewhere else,” Cook said.
Cook said “distribution centers are really coming to the forefront now.” He said the county team last year “worked several other projects. We didn’t get them, but they are real popular here on 85 now, and we actually have another one that we are currently working.” He declined to identify the prospect.
Nestle USA Prepared Food Division, Milliken & Co.’s Magnolia Finishing Plant, The Timken Co., Freightliner Custom Chassis Corp. and Hamrick Mills Inc. are the county’s largest manufacturing employers. Cook said the textile industry has been a big part of the growth since the Great Recession, with companies such as Parkdale Mills investing $45 million and saving up to 145 jobs in starting operations at an existing building. In 2012, Toronto-based Ace Bakery invested $18.4 million in opening a Cherokee County facility with plans for 51 jobs.
In 2013, Associated Hardwoods picked Cherokee County for a computer-operated sawmill, a $9.8 million investment with 28 jobs. Cook said the New Markets Tax Credit program and proximity to hardwoods were factors in the decision by the Granite Falls, N.C.-based company to expand.
“They are in the furniture business,” Cook said. “They are going gangbusters.”
In 2014, Suminoe Textile of America Corp., a supplier of textile products for the automotive market, invested $5 million and added 100 jobs at its needle punch carpet facility, its second Cherokee County expansion in a decade.
“The textile industry is not dead. It has morphed. It has changed,” Cook said. “We still have over a dozen textile or advanced materials … spinning, anything that can be heavily automated. We are still getting projects today. It is just not the same 2,000-people, red-brick building with a big smokestack. It is totally automated and changed, but it is definitely alive and well.”
Cook said the county’s lineup of businesses is “very diverse.”
“We get asked a lot, ‘What are our target market industries?’” he said. “We are kind of whatever comes our way. We’ve got a lot of automotive, with Freightliner and Timken, which has done some expansions. Suminoe, which is actually textile but automotive related, food industries, agriculture business, Nestle is still going strong here. So is the agribusiness.”
While the iconic Peachoid tower promoting the locally grown fruit and a retail outlet park are the eye catchers along the county’s 22 miles of Interstate 85, Cook said the development board, community leaders and others on the business recruiting team have compiled a diverse lineup of business relocations and expansions.
“It’s our lifeblood to be on 85, but I’m not Spartanburg, and I’m not the Gaston County, Charlotte-Mecklenburg area. The good news is we are beside both of those. And so we are going to see growth from both directions. We are already seeing it,” Cook said. He said “requests for information are really up.”
Cook said recruiting efforts are getting a boost from state plans to widen the interstate and upgrade interchanges that will improve access to the S.C. Inland Port 30 minutes away.
“That was instrumental in convincing Dollar Tree,” Cook said of the interstate work expected to start later this year. If that wasn’t going to happen it would have been tough to get that job. I think Dollar Tree is going to be like the second-largest user of the inland port.” The Dollar Tree site at Upstate Corporate Park will access the interstate on S.C. Highway 110, which is among the scheduled interchange upgrades.
“The inland port is a big player,” Cook said. “Warehousing and distribution centers are popular now. We are right in the mix.”
Cook said the biggest challenge is workforce. He said The Recon Group’s late 2014 announcement of a $1.3 million investment and up to 248 jobs at a new Blacksburg facility refurbishing electronic devices and televisions that have been returned by consumers are “technical jobs but not real high tech.”
“That’s the kind of jobs we are getting, not the real super high tech, because of the education level of the workforce in Cherokee County that we are working on, but we are just … not there yet.”
Cook’s office is a short walk from the new Spartanburg Community College Center for Advanced Manufacturing and Industrial Technologies, which aims to provide larger numbers of skilled prospects for workforce recruiters. The $8 million facility is providing training for careers such as automated manufacturing; automotive; industrial electronics; machine tool; mechatronics; welding; and heating, ventilation and air conditioning. Construction of a Cherokee Technology Center for high school students is also planned at the college campus.
“Workforce is an issue we are going to have to stay on for a long, long time,” Cook said. “You can build a building, and you can build a sewer line relatively quick with a little bit of money, but changing a workforce is going to take time and keeping it where it needs to be.”
Daryl Smith, director of the Cherokee County college campus, said the 27,500-square-foot facility allows students to complete their first year in mechatronics without traveling to Spartanburg.
“Just about everybody needs the mechatronics kind of person,” Smith said. “It’s not just manufacturing. That’s the big users, but anybody who has facilities or any type of equipment that has electronics and mechanical interface.”
Smith said the program is recruiting students, and there is room to grow. He said there are about 80 students “in the building right now. We could probably serve in the normal hours of operation probably 350.”
Cook said he and others are “trying to get young people to get more excited about technical training. Not that college is bad. We still want you to go to college, but we still want a lot of people to see there is opportunity here.”